Jan. 4—On the eve of the 2022 legislative session, some health care professionals charged Tuesday that an assortment of COVID-19-related bills represent an unprecedented attack on public health.
Their virtual press briefing was over roughly 30 pieces of legislation that include bans on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, broadened vaccine exemptions and changes in how information is kept on the state's immunization registry.
The immediate priority for the health care contingent was to urge the House of Representatives to reject a bill making it illegal for any private or public entity to impose a vaccine mandate (HB 255).
This bill, left over from the 2021 session is expected to come up when the House meets today [Wednesday] and Thursday at the Doubletree hotel in downtown Manchester.
"This is a significant increase in the attack on public health, and is not looking at the big picture of what we need to do in keeping us safe," said Mary Bidgood-Wilson, former executive director of the New Hampshire Nurse Practitioners Association.
Jake Berry, vice president of policy with New Futures Inc., an advocacy group for substance abuse treatment, said the breadth of these measures is unprecedented.
"This year is unlike any we have ever seen in the past in terms of the number of bills," Berry said. "So many would have a drastic and damaging impact on the public health care system."
But state Rep. Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton, said the House Republican majority believes adults must have the freedom to choose whether to be vaccinated.
Lang is authoring a bill to let parents refuse to have their children get a vaccination if they are a "conscientious objector" to it (HB 1035).
Currently, parents can request their child not be vaccinated due to a medical or religious exemption.
"House Republicans believe that New Hampshire citizens will continue to do what's right for them and their communities. We trust them to make their own informed medical choice," Lang said.
Nearly three in four adults have gotten some form of vaccination, and there's another cohort of citizens with natural immunity, having already gotten coronavirus, Lang added.
House Education Committee Chairman Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, authored HB 255 as the New Hampshire House GOP response to Biden administration's vaccination mandates.
"This unnecessary mandate is trampling state powers and imposing new burdens on employers when they can least afford it, an infringement on personal rights, and making life harder for the unvaccinated who want to work in an economy with already too few workers," Ladd said.
Gov. Chris Sununu has embraced the state joining two lawsuits against Biden mandates, but he opposes any legislation to block private business owners from imposing their own mandate to protect employees and the public.
State officials reported Tuesday 27 more deaths from COVID-19 and confirmed another four deaths that were COVID-related last November. This brought the total to 2,004 since the pandemic began.
Hospitalizations statewide with COVID-19 remained at 381, the same census that the state reported on Monday.
Dr. Thomas Lydon, an emergency medicine physician at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, said COVID hospitalizations, down to 20 just before Christmas, was back up to 32 patients last Monday.
"Most of these cases are completely preventable," Lydon said.
The hospital hit an all-time high of 50 COVID patients in mid-December, and Lydon predicted these numbers will keep going back up in the next few weeks.
Edward Shanshala II, chief executive officer at Ammonoosuc Community Health Services in Littleton, said many hospitals have suspended or delayed non-urgent care procedures.
"The delayed impact of this is already being felt. We need policy that are supportive of public health now more than ever," Shanshala said.
Paula MacKinnon, president with the New Hampshire School Nurse Association, said health care workers feel under assault as the debate over vaccine mandates has become more heated.
"We started out as the heroes and now we are the enemy, and it is very hard to continue to do your job as a health care worker when you don't feel support," MacKinnon said.
Cathy Spinney of Pelham, a small business owner, said she's been in fear of getting COVID because she is the primary caregiver for her daughter Kelly, 39, who has significant developmental disabilities.
"If I were to get sick with COVID, I couldn't take care of Kelly without risking her life," Spinney said.
Spinney urged people to drop philosophical opposition to a mandate in favor of keeping the public safer.
"I understand that nobody likes being told what to do; sometimes we are called to look at the world through a different lens," she said.